Orphanages in America: Mourning the Loss of Community Impetus

Home Away From Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages by Richard B. McKenzieIn modern-day America, orphanages are a thing of the past. Due to the emergence of foster care, the expansion of welfare, and an overall increase in life expectancy, orphanages are now seen to be largely unnecessary.

But there’s another reason for their demise which typically supersedes the rest: People tend to think that orphanages are bad.

Indeed, from Oliver Twist to Little Orphan Annie, we have long been bombarded by images of the lonely child living in cramped quarters with little to eat and even less to read. The masters are cruel, the children are loathsome, and the food is inedible.

But “not so” — or not necessarily so — says Richard B. McKenzie, editor of a recent collection of essays titled Home Away From Home: The Forgotten History of Orphanages. In the collection, McKenzie attempts to inform our common perceptions of orphanages by offering us a glimpse into what the orphanage life was really like.

The conclusion? Sometimes Dickensian, sometimes not. In either case, the McKenzian solution is a bit more cautious than we’re used to.

To build the collection, McKenzie assembled a number of academics to condense their works into more “manageable” chapters. As for McKenzie himself, he promotes a positive view of orphanages, particularly because he himself had a positive experience growing up in one.

“Critics of orphanages stress what the children there did not have.” McKenzie says. “Those of us who were there have a different perspective. We were, and remain, able to draw comparisons between what we had at The Home with what we would have had.”

But although McKenzie has his own opinions on the personal and socio-political benefits of orphanages, he has already edited a volume on that subject. Instead, this book is intended to bring clarity to a forgotten past. He is not trying to proselytize a particular policy solution, but rather to provide rich historical insight into the orphanage experience — “real,” he says, “warts and all.”

The analysis covers the globe, moving from Constantinople to Venice to the Netherlands. But although many different cultures and time periods are discussed, the primary focus centers on American orphanages during the 19th- and early 20th-centuries. As far as the specific items analyzed, the authors explore everything from the general living conditions to the various sponsor types to the actual societal fruit brought to bear.

In the end, despite the objectivity of each essay (including plenty of “warts”), the overall depiction of orphanages comes off as highly positive. This is by no means to imply that all orphanages are, for as each author duly emphasizes, not all orphanages are created equal.

As Timothy A. Hacsi writes in the concluding chapter:

No two orphanages in the nineteenth century were the same. Communities built childcare institutions to fit their needs. Private orphanages were flexible, practical, and adaptable to community needs…some orphanages were quick to adopt the latest innovations in child welfare, while others moved more slowly…yet the volunteering

As for the Remnant Culture reader, the most interesting details have to do with how orphanages were funded and who controlled them. Given the primary focus on American orphanages, these discussions often begin with each orphanage’s roots (e.g. a church, community, or fraternal organization) and end with how such roots were eventually uprooted and replaced by government bureaucracies (particularly during the Progressive Era).

For example, beginning in the early 1900s policies were pushed that tightly regulated and therefore squeezed the remaining funds from local orphanages. New government rules and restrictions put pressure on private orphanages while foster care (or “in-home care”) was pushed as a more ideal, more civilized alternative.

Although the book doesn’t touch on the rampant abuses and injustices of the resulting foster care system, it is entirely clear that today’s problems have their roots in high-minded, top-down social engineering. With the rise of such government intervention, communities were no longer able to provide institutions geared toward a particular person in a particular disposition. No longer were churches as empowered to bond together and directly assist the downtrodden according to their religious beliefs. The market de-specialized and the all-knowing government became a detached and all-determining CEO.

But this isn’t to say that orphanages were always entirely private. Indeed, most of them always had some kind of financial support from a local government. Nearly all of the authors point out this feature, and most of them provide significant evidence that most orphanages would have suffered without some kind of government support.

So why is it such a bad thing that child welfare has been substituted with a more “public” approach?

As Hacsi explains:

The impetus for orphanages in the Unites States came from private citizens and private groups, and they provided the backbone of the loose orphanage system that dominated child welfare from the 1840s to the 1920s.

But once this private “impetus” was dismantled (or disincentivized), what was lost?

Perhaps the most important thing about the private-public [as opposed to the public-private or public-public] venture was that it was initiated and centered on the decisions and actions of private citizens; public agencies provided crucial support in specific ways, and some oversight concerning quality, but little else. (emphasis added)

As with anything, when you move from the private individual to the public autocrat, the actual need becomes distorted and perverted. Thus, among the many damaging consequences, the approach taken to each child was determined by a high-level bureaucracy rather than a local, culturally formed community. In other words, the solutions became less suited to the needs.

But as moralists, there is a more important loss than the overall efficiency of the system. We as individuals have allowed the government to assume our charity for us. Communities that once rallied to take action on behalf of orphans have now allowed a few perverse incentives to suck their impetus dry. True, we should promote a system that properly incentivizes and empowers individual potential, but even when such a system does not manifest, we must not cede our personal responsibility to the prevailing authority — especially when it is failing our children as much as the current system is.

Home Away From Home provides a look into the past that is encouraging, not just because orphanages weren’t as bad as we think they were, but because they direct our attention to a time when communities took their own initiative to help the needy.

We need more of that, and whether it means a resurgence of orphanages, an increase in adoptions, more responsible foster care, or better parenting, we should be striving to achieve it.

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  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/24588469047 Remnant Culture

    From Oliver Twist to Little Orphan Annie, our culture has consistently given orphanages a bad rap. Justified or no? http://bt.io/G0Yf #tlot

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/24697809943 Remnant Culture

    When it comes to child welfare, we have ceded our responsibility to the government. What happened? http://bt.io/G0Yf

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/25035713096 Remnant Culture

    The forgotten history of orphanages: Dickensian or McKenzian? http://bt.io/G0Yf

  • http://twitter.com/remnantculture/status/44080614479101952 Remnant Culture

    Communities that once rallied to help orphans have now allowed a few perverse incentives to suck their impetus dry. http://bt.io/GlpD

  • Snowninjas

    There’s an orphanage in America, or at least one I know of.  

  • Halu7abby3

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    Orphanages in America: